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People, Locations, Episodes

Thu, 03.12.1903

Max Gordon, Jazz activist born

Max Gordon

*Max Gordon on this date in 1903.  He was a white-American Jewish jazz promoter and founder of the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City.  

Born in Svir, Lithuania (now in Belarus), Gordon emigrated to the United States in 1908 at age five. The family settled in Portland, Oregon, where he later attended Reed College.  As a young man, he was interested in Russian and French novels and saw himself as a romantic type.  Pursuing his parents' wish that he become a lawyer, he moved to New York in 1926 to attend Columbia Law School but began working in nightclubs and dropped out: "I learned to take my education where I could find it."  

In 1932 Gordon opened his first venue, Village Fair, in the tradition of Viennese coffee houses as a place for artists and writers. He relocated the venue once in 1934 and opened the Village Vanguard in 1935. The Vanguard initially offered poetry. Over time, the club segued into cabaret acts, comedy, folk music and jazz before going exclusively jazz in 1957.  The club hosted a who's who of jazz greats from the 1940s to the 1980s including John ColtraneSidney BechetDinah WashingtonAlbert AylerMiles DavisWynton Marsalis, Henry Threadgill and Thelonious Monk (at the time an unknown, discovered by Gordon's wife Lorraine).  

The club's artistic direction was in part guided by Lorraine who had a keen interest in jazz.  Over time the club became a popular recording spot and over 100 jazz albums have been recorded there.  Gordon sought new talent and gave younger performers a platform to showcase their work. In doing so he played a role in helping launch the careers of Judy Holliday, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Barbra Streisand, Pearl Bailey, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Irwin Corey, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly. He had a reputation for fairness and honesty among the performers.  

In addition to the Vanguard, in 1940s Gordon opened the Blue Angel club in midtown Manhattan and was involved in its operation for fourteen years. He actively managed the Vanguard club well into his 80s.  In 1982 he authored a memoir titled Live at the Village Vanguard which chronicles the history of the club. Max Gordon died on May 11, 1989, at age 86. Subsequently Lorraine Gordon continued the work and took an active role in managing the Vanguard club. 


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